Manch Wheeler, a former University of Maine quarterback who led the Black Bears to one of their greatest seasons before reaching the American Football League with the Buffalo Bills, has died, the school announced Monday. He was 79.

“Manch was a tremendous player and ambassador to our football family,” Black Bears coach Joe Harasymiak said in the release. “His presence at Alfond Stadium will be sorely missed.”

Wheeler, who was born in Augusta and grew up in Manchester, was a standout at Orono, earning an All-Conference selection in 1961. He led the team in interceptions in 1960 and ’61, was second on the team in scoring in ’60 and third in rushing in ’61.

It was throwing the ball, however, where he set himself apart. Wheeler led the Black Bears in passing from 1959-61, and guided Maine to an 8-0-1 record in his final season, the program’s last undefeated season. The Black Bears also won the Yankee Conference that fall with a 5-0 league mark.

The performance and Wheeler’s powerful throwing arm got the attention of the Bills, who signed Wheeler as a free agent in 1962 and kept him on board as a member of a quarterback corps that included two-time All-Pro Jack Kemp. Wheeler played one season in Buffalo, appearing in four games and rushing three times for seven yards.

The journey was enough to get Wheeler inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

“It was a good experience,” Wheeler said then of his professional football career. “Football was always a vehicle to get to know people. Playing was fun, but it was the people — the coaches and players — that was what it was all about.”

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